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Chevy image isn't as easy as apple pie

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Chevy image isn't as easy as apple pie

Chrissie Thompson

Automotive News -- June 28, 2010 - 12:01 am ET

DETROIT -- When Joel Ewanick killed the new "Excellence for All" tag line last month, some Chevrolet marketers' first instinct was dismay. Almost a year of searching for a new tag line, and back to nothing?

But better nothing than the wrong thing -- not at this crucial moment for the Chevrolet brand. While archrival Ford is gaining momentum in sales and image, Chevrolet still has for many shoppers a Rust Belt aura of poor quality and yesterday's mistakes.

Defining a new identity for General Motors Co.'s top-selling brand has been one of Ewanick's most urgent tasks since he joined GM last month as U.S. marketing chief. No one thinks the brand is in crisis, but the heat is on to get it absolutely right.

The Chevrolet marketing team, now headed by Jim Campbell, has endured a revolving door of top executives and ad agencies. Early this month, the current team's judgment was ridiculed nationwide when executives discouraged the use of the iconic Chevy nickname.

And as Ford attracts higher-paying customers with such cars as the Taurus, it's clear that an old Chevy marketing standby -- wrapping the brand in heartland values -- is becoming problematic.

Chevrolet, which accounted for 72 percent of GM's 2010 sales through May, must keep loyal customers who prefer domestic brands and connect with Chevy's long-established image. But it also must lure new buyers, who in many cases equate Chevrolet's Americana with bad experiences with the age-old brand.

"Chevy needs to evolve, and it doesn't mean leaving behind that heritage, but it certainly could mean leaving behind some baggage," says analyst Rebecca Lindland of IHS Automotive. "It's a balance between appealing to the domestic buyers and pulling in the new buyers."

What's a Chevrolet?

Take Chevy vs. Chevrolet. The Chevy nickname fiasco underlined the problem facing the brand's marketers: Just what should Chevrolet stand for?

Chevrolet's sales and marketing chiefs had to backtrack on their anti-Chevy memo after dismayed owners and employees defended the beloved nickname. Chevrolet said it would continue to seek more consistency in branding but acknowledged it still would use "Chevy" for pickup commercials and NASCAR.

Campbell's team also developed "Excellence for All" with former ad agency Publicis Worldwide, only to have the tag line scrapped when Ewanick arrived. He thought the slogan was bland and lacked an essential ring, an insider says. Because it was new -- appearing in only a couple of months of print ads -- it was easy to dump it and find a better one.

"It was never around long enough to deep-dive it and to bring it to any full potential," the person says.

After the quick reversal, leaders steadied the staff, the insider says. "Instead of throwing out these one-liners to say, 'How does this sound?' " the person says, the team started work on the larger task. "It's making sure we have the right positioning," the insider says.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet's cross-town rival already has completed its quest for a consistent identity. The Ford brand is staging a resurgence, fueled in part by its emphasis on upscale technology.

Ford emerged from the collapse of 2008 and 2009 as the top brand in U.S. light-vehicle sales this year, with 703,327 to Chevy's 639,981 through May. And while Chevrolet's 2010 market share through May is a point higher than its full-year share last year, Ford's has gained 1.4 points to lead the U.S. market with 15.2 percent.

Ford holds an advantage over GM partly because it went through its crisis and restructuring earlier, analyst Lindland says, and because it avoided government-sponsored bankruptcy last year. Ford's low point came in 2005, when the brand first lost the U.S. sales title to Chevrolet after 18 years on top.

Ford's head start

But Ford is gaining traction for its tech-savvy image as it advertises its Sync system, continues to spend on social media for the Fiesta small car and pitches vehicle features in commercials that feel like online video clips.

The Taurus sedan, redesigned last year and laden with high-tech features, is winning far higher transaction prices than the Chevrolet Impala.

So far this year, the Impala has averaged transaction prices that trail those of the Taurus by several thousand dollars, according to price researcher TrueCar. In fact, average transaction prices for the Taurus are more comparable to those of GM's upscale Buick LaCrosse sedan. The Impala's next redesign is expected for 2013.

Similarly, Chevrolet may have an image gap with the Cruze small car, which is styled more conservatively than the competing Ford Focus. The Cruze arrives in showrooms in September, and the redesigned Focus, which Ford is moving upscale from the current model, arrives early next year.

And while some Chevrolet vehicles such as the Traverse crossover are beating their Ford rivals in sales, Ford is preparing another attack with the launch of its redesigned Explorer. The automaker is teasing supporters with partial photos of the vehicle on Facebook, which will host the unveiling this summer. Production starts late this year.

Chevrolet spokesman Klaus-Peter Martin says the brand plans to emphasize its positioning on product, quality and technology.

"Everybody's trying to do the same thing, so companies try to find their spot in the market," he says. And Chevrolet's marketing will soon have to encompass everything from the upcoming Spark minicar to the Corvette, from the Volt plug-in hybrid to a heavy-duty pickup, he says.

But while Chevrolet still searches for a brandwide identity, marketers think many of their product-specific ads are hitting their marks. For instance, ads that paint the Traverse as a safe, reliable family vehicle have translated into nearly 41,000 sales of the crossover this year, compared with 16,453 Ford Flexes sold.

Chevrolet's U.S. sales gain through May is nearly twice that of the industry. That's despite having had three top marketers in the past year and dithering among marketing strategies.

The chaos started in July last year when then-Chevrolet boss Ed Peper said the brand would replace its 5-year-old "American Revolution" tag line. In January, current marketing head Campbell said Chevrolet would remain tagless.

New commercials by Publicis that debuted in February featured the line "Chevrolet: You can depend on it, so people can depend on you," which spokesman Martin said would appear only in those ads. Two months later, Chevrolet said it would give Publicis its advertising contract, severing a 91-year relationship with Campbell-Ewald.

The result was "Excellence for All," which appeared only in print ads. Commercials that began May 23, days after Ewanick's arrival, said only, "Because everyone deserves excellence."

New work will take still a different direction, since Ewanick canned Publicis in mid-May and chose Goodby, Silverstein & Partners as Chevrolet's agency.

The new work will have to make Chevrolet loyalists feel at home -- without bringing up baggage for prospective new buyers.

The clock is ticking.

Impala trails Taurus

The Taurus has nudged up Ford's brand image while fetching strong transaction prices. These are figures for January through May.

Chevrolet Impala $26,844

Ford Taurus $32,329

Buick LaCrosse $34,059

Source: TrueCar

Read more: http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100628/RETAIL03/306289965/1261#ixzz0s9NyaLge

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